The attack on Tobruk

Infantry from the 6th Australian Division move forward during the assault on Tobruk

In almost a repeat performance of the attack on Bardia the Australian 6th Division made a dawn assault on the Italian garrison at Tobruk on 21st January. The Italians appeared to believe their own propaganda, which was telling the Italian home audience that their soldiers were being overwhelmed by massively superior forces. In fact the reverse was true, if the Italians had moved out from their static defensive positions the British might well have had difficulty containing them. As it was they remained in their bunkers under constant harassing artillery fire whilst the British built up their attacking forces. The final assault was preceded by bombing. Then the attacking infantry went forward behind a creeping barrage supported by naval gunfire. Many of the defenders were surprised in their bunkers, having become so accustomed to shellfire that they did not realise that an attack was accompanying it. The garrison crumbled even more quickly that at Bardia.

The wear and tear of the desert had reduced the small number of tanks that were available, and the attack was delayed for a couple of days while repairs were made. Captain Barker describes how his Matilda tanks went into action:

Approaching a wadi we’d been shelled for about three miles without being able to tell where the fire came from. I spotted a gun flash from behind stones on the wadi edge. I ordered my troop to attack, ignoring machine-guns and anti-tank fire from the flank. It was the guns we were after.

Then I heard a whoof of shells passing at point-blank range. It was a question of which would knock out the other first. I just kept straight on and told the gunner to let go when we were near. Although we were yawing and pitching all over the place he hit the emplacement with his first shot.

Then we went for three other guns. I turned quickly, which threw up a cloud of dust, drove round the cloud and took them by surprise. When we were only yards away we could see the men in their dark green uniforms with their coats open, sweating as they tried to hump their guns round and train them on us. We simply went straight towards them, firing; we would have gone straight over them if we hadn’t knocked their guns out. Then we drove the loaders and odds and ends into the dugout. And the next thing I saw was a white flag emerging.

See The Imperial War Museum Book of the Desert War 1940 – 1942

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Andrew Shakespeare January 27, 2016 at 9:19 am

It must have helped the war effort, having a policy of allowing enemy soldiers to surrender and then treating them relatively decently afterwards. Surrender must have been a temptation for Italian soldiers, who tended to be of low morale and poorly led.

By contrast, German (and Italian) soldiers on the eastern front knew they could expect little mercy from the Russians, which must surely have strengthened their resolve not to surrender.

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